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On Sale: April 21, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27150-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

An utterly irresistible first novel: The story of two sisters, the yearning to disappear into another country, and the powerful desire to return to the known world. Linno is a gifted artist, despite a childhood accident that has left her badly maimed, and Anju is one of Kerala’s most promising students. Both girls dream of coming to the United States, but it is Anju who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in New York. She seizes it, even though it means lying and betraying her sister. When her lie is discovered, Anju disappears. Back in Kerala, Linno is undergoing a transformation of her own. But when she learns of Anju’s disappearance, Linno strikes out farther still, with a scheme to procure a visa so that she can come to America to look for her sister and save them both.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

1.

The day begins wrong. Melvin feels it upon waking, as though he has slipped his right foot into his left shoe and must shuffle along with a wrong-footed feeling all day. That today is Christmas Eve brings no comfort at all.

It is not the first morning to begin this way. Throughout his forty-five years, Melvin Vallara has periodically awakened to a nuisance in his stomach, an inner itch of ill portent that could bode anything from a bee sting to a gruesome bull-on-bus accident. Both events occurred on his seventh birthday, and he still has not forgotten that bull, how it bounced on its back before landing on its side.

This is what the Bible says: I tell you the truth . . . no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Nor, Melvin would add, in his own family. His mother believes that the inner itch has more to do with gas than foresight, and like her mother before her, Ammachi calls upon an arsenal of unwritten remedies. She prepares a murky white goo from the boiled grounds of a medicinal root, while her granddaughter Linno watches from the doorway of the kitchen.

“Which root?” Linno asks.

“The name, I don’t remember. A multipurpose root,” Ammachi decides, borrowing an English phrase she heard from a Stain-Off! commercial, one in which a cartoon soap sud possessed eyes and a smile.

Linno delivers the bowl of multipurpose root goo to her father, who is draped across his bed, an arm over his eyes. When he sees the bowl, he responds by turning away, onto his side. He is a man of few words, but clearly he and the goo have met before.

Linno believes. She is thirteen and dutiful, convinced that part of her duty is to champion her father’s prophecies, even though he lacks the frothy beard and brooding of biblical prophets and his name falls short of the weight and might of an Elijah or a Mohammed. In fact, he more closely resembles the icon of a gloomy-eyed saint: slight, balding, his forehead growing longer by the year. Linno tries to make up for the little attention he gets by bestowing as much as she can, so she supports his decision to stay home from morning Mass. She also hopes that Ammachi might let her support him from home.

It is not to be. In the end, Linno leaves along with the rest of the family and returns from church to find Melvin still asleep, his hands in fists by his face, as if to pummel ill fortune away.



But then, there is the Entertainment to consider.

Melvin forgot to purchase the Entertainment from the Fancy Shoppe the day before, and now here they are—Linno and her younger sister, Anju—home from morning Mass with less than sixteen hours until midnight Mass, and no Entertainment? Unacceptable. Unfair. The Entertainment is tradition, a promise upon waking, a beautiful, blinding answer to the holy punishments of morning. Without the Entertainment, there is only the looming threat of carolers who travel from house to house, proud as roosters in their red mufflers, belting melodies and collecting church donations all through the night.

Late afternoon breezes swell the sun-gilded trees that lift and sigh, sifting the light between their branches. There is still time left in the day to visit the Fancy Shoppe, if Melvin can be persuaded. Ammachi refuses to go back out once she has unpinned the Christmas brooch from her shoulder, a brass dove that she nests in its velvet-lined case, where it will remain until next Christmas Eve. She removes the embroidered shawl draped over her shoulder and goes about the house in the white chatta and mundu that all Syrian Christian women used to wear, so few now still starching their blouses and pleating their wraps despite the patterned profusion of saris surrounding them.

Her brow still furrowed from the severity of her worship, she sits in a white plastic chair, her eyes closed, her swollen, lotioned ankles perched on the daybed across from her as Linno reads aloud from the newspaper.

Ammachi takes pleasure in knowing the happenings of district politics, lambasting corrupt politicians as if they are standing before her, a row of sulking children. But lately, large-scale developments have been attracting her rebuke, particularly new plans for the construction of a national highway, a network of roads and bridges, three to six lanes thick, that will send vehicles speeding from Kashmir to Bangalore, and west to east in a third of the usual time. “With double the waste,” Ammachi warns. Examining the map, the dark passages splayed across the country, she rejects its unpronounceable given name—the Golden Quadrilateral—and coins it instead “the Golden Colon.”

During Ammachi’s indictments, Linno sketches her grandmother along the margins of the newspaper, paying special attention to her bun, a silver-gray swirl that maintains its integrity without help from a single hairpin. These sketches interest Melvin more than the news itself, so much so that he neatly tears out and saves his favorites. Gracie, his wife, used to tease that he would turn anything, even a bottle cap, into a souvenir. He is sure that had Gracie lived to see these sketches, she would have saved them as well. They seem to belong to the hand of someone much older, who understands not only the anatomy of the face but the way muscles hold emotion, the way eyes possess life. He keeps the drawings in a faded cigarillo box that bears the face of a mustached white man on the lid.



While Linno draws Ammachi, Anju follows her father through the bedroom, the sitting room, and even hovers around the outhouse, reciting in English from the Book of Isaiah as he does his business. At nine years old, Anju is a valiant Bible Bowler, her brain an unbeatable vault of Scripture that she draws upon to give herself authority, even when faced with a sighing audience. Unlike Linno, Anju will not accept defeat. At least five times a day, she pulls on the tip of her nose, believing that her efforts will somehow win her a straighter one. With similar persistence, she follows her father into the sitting room, translating and interpreting the text as verses of fortitude and godly reliance, closing her case with the reminder that he never got her a birthday gift.

When logic fails, Anju’s argument devolves. She whimpers, tugging at the hem of her T-shirt (“Eddi, stop stretching it!” Ammachi warns), and threatens to run away, which is a predictable threat, as she is always running away and Linno is always sent to fetch her. The only mystery lies in which neighbor’s house Anju might choose as her sanctuary. Usually Linno finds her sitting on someone’s front step, bleakly toeing patterns in the dirt until she spots Linno in the yard. Anju always comes away quietly, gradually softening beneath the weight of her sister’s hand on her shoulder. Sometimes, after a silence, Anju will ask, “What took you so long?”

Melvin retires to the daybed with his arm over his eyes while Ammachi lectures, while Linno draws, while Anju continues to flit around him with her runaway threats, until at last he says, “Enough.” Melvin sits up and rubs his eyes with his fists, muttering that it is bet- ter to disappoint God than to disappoint daughters. “At least God forgives.”



Linno accompanies her father to the Fancy Shoppe, riding sidesaddle on the back of his bicycle, her heels held away from the spokes. They cut through mingled smells of dung, earth, freshwater, pesticides. They bump along between paddy fields that, in stillness, reflect the sky’s blue with such clarity that grass seems to spring from liquid sky. At the water’s edge, a medley of palms bend low, falling in love with their likenesses, while webs of light spangle the dark undersides of the leaves. Whenever a bus appears on the horizon, Melvin pulls over to the side and waits for the bus to groan past, spewing dust and diesel in its wake, before he plunges his foot down onto the pedal. Her view of the road is blocked by his shoulders, dark and tense all the way down to the unsettling clutch of his fingers around the handlebars.

Linno wonders what kind of gut feeling struck Melvin on the day her mother died. Perhaps he had seen her funeral face in dreams, with skin so spackled over with paint that she seemed a porcelain replica of the person she had been. Here was her lineless forehead, every wrinkle erased like a past swept clean. Here was her tiny smile, as though amused by a secret.

After the funeral, the albums were all packed away in trunks, but a single photo of Gracie remains within reach: the newlywed photograph, a black-and-white double portrait that every couple took in those days, tucked in a back pocket of Ammachi’s Bible. Gracie appears vaguely pretty but in a sharp, plain way, considerably shorter than Melvin, and cheerless. Husband and wife stand next to each other, shoulders touching, gazing sternly up into the camera as if being summoned into battle.

. . .

The Entertainment comes in a paper bag, folded down and stapled shut. Linno and Anju spend the evening dutifully guarding the bag from interference, though no one wants to interfere more than they do They shove wads of chapati into their mouths, fixated on the bag. They argue over who should hold it and how. Anju tries to educate Linno about a rarely read passage in the Bible, which suggests that younger sisters should always get their way. Anju is a strange little sieve of general knowledge, continually dribbling answers to questions that no one has asked. This one Linno knows not to believe, just as she didn’t believe it that last time with her Cadbury Fruit & Nut.

After dinner, the girls have no choice but to wait on the front step, swatting at mosquitoes, the Entertainment placed equidistant between them. Theirs is a small brick and stucco house with a thatched ola roof, humbly crouched among the slanting coconut trees that are charming by day yet spindly, looming and long-armed by night. Two lanky tree trunks span the brook in front, making a shaky footpath that the girls race across, testing their balance and bravery, light as birds on a branch.



As the night softens with fog, the family collects on the front steps. Dragging a plastic chair behind her, Ammachi mutters that this is a show she has seen before, and what it has to do with Yesu’s birth, she does not know. For the first time in history, Melvin allows Linno to assist him, while Anju is told to sit on the steps. In mute protest, Anju takes a pose beyond her nine years, legs crossed, head tilted, fingers laced around her knee, like a woman in a magazine.

From the paper bag, Melvin lifts a parcel whose label displays two words in red block letters: rainbow thunder. Out of the parcel, plastic crackling, Melvin pulls a bundle of sparklers.

These Linno lights as reverently as if she were lighting candles at church. All else around her dissolves into shadow and there is only the single captive star, its spitfire warmth that belongs, however briefly, to her alone. Even Ammachi accepts a sparkler and, equally transfixed, begins circling hers in figure eights, watching the wild spray of orange light, frowning a little when it dies to a glowing ember.

And then, what fire! One aerial miracle follows the next. There is the Volcano—a small cone that splutters before erupting into a great geiser of liquid flame, rising, rising, borne on a splendid gushing noise. The Mouse, which Melvin lights from the throat of an empty toddy bottle, a faint sizzle before the white-pink bullet shoots into the trees and spirals over the branches. And finally, the Necklace, a length of tiny dynamite that Melvin ties to a low branch of the jackfruit tree. When he lights the fuse, everyone plugs their ears against the sound, a violent rifle crack, mercilessly loud as it pop-pop-pops all the way up to the branch.

A silky smoke roams over the ground as Ammachi murmurs, grudgingly, that firecrackers are not so bad. “But if it were me, I would buy a nice set of mugs over these light tricks any day.” In a rare embrace of Western custom, she cites the examples of other countries where the father gives Christmas gifts to the entire family. Even his mother.

Melvin points out that his sister, Jilu, is American. “When was the last time she gave us anything?”

“Hah, Jilu was American! Now she is in Canada. And what do you mean anything?” Ammachi rattles off a list of items: “Soap, socks, a fitted sheet, Tang . . .”

“Those socks were used. And that fitted sheet only fit half a bed.”

While Ammachi and Melvin argue over Jilu’s largesse, Linno begins untying what is left of the Necklace from its branch. Several links remain on the blown fuse.

Anju calls out, “Eh, Linno, we already lit that one.”

Linno is studying the remnants of the Necklace when she looks up at Anju, then at her father. She is pinned, suddenly, by the look of fear in a grown man’s face.

“Drop that—” Melvin says, or begins to say, she cannot tell.

Because from this point, everything happens with a slow grace, in the space of seconds. Linno feels nothing and sees everything, in all its strange clarity. The links exploding in her palm, fire flowering and blazing above the watch that she wears facing in so she can check the time discreetly when she is at school. The face of the watch, splashed with light, now a flickering gold coin and above it, her hand held captive by a star, the shifting folds of flame and heat giving way to that time when her mother slit her finger while scaling a fish, how astonishing it was, the scarlet simplicity of what dripped from her, wet petals on the edge of the sink.

And then Linno realizes that what she thought was the screaming of wind is a sound that only a girl can make, a girl on fire.


From the Hardcover edition.
Tania James|Author Q&A

About Tania James

Tania James - Atlas of Unknowns

TANIA JAMES is the author of the novel Atlas of Unknowns and the short story collection Aerogrammes. Her fiction has appeared in Boston Review, Granta, Guernica, One Story, A Public Space, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Washington, DC.

Author Q&A

Q: You’re only 28, you have degrees from Harvard and Columbia and this is your debut novel. Have you always been an overachiever?
A:
Until recently, one of my grandmothers was under the impression that I was on my way to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Which is what I told her when I was ten, and ever since, she’d been cherishing an image of me as an Indian Bader-Ginsburg. So I guess I’ve overachieved in some respects, and underachieved in others.

Q: Your undergraduate degree was in filmmaking. What made you want to get an MFA in writing?
A:
For me, college was a completely wonderful and unrealistic place where I could write short stories and make 16mm films, simultaneously, but I also became aware that if I never focused on one discipline at a time, after college, they would both remain hobbies. I decided to apply to film and writing MFA programs, and in the end, I was drawn toward writing. Looking back, I don’t think that writing was ever really a choice; it was the landscape I felt most comfortable in, the medium in which I felt most free to explore. But I can’t say that the multitude of film students in this city, hulking around their trunks of equipment, don’t make me nostalgic and jealous. Maybe that’s why I wrote about one.

Q: One of the (fairly insufferable and always hilarious) characters in Atla s o f Unknowns, Rohit, is a filmmaker. Did you use your undergraduate experience to create this character?
A:
I worry that Rohit reflects badly on personal documentaries, though some of my favorite films are personal documentaries. When I was an undergraduate, the film faculty was well known for filmmakers who had accomplished a great deal in that form, people like Robb Moss and Ross McElwee, and I, like many students, found myself trying to make films like theirs. I watched McElwee’s Six O’Clock News at some point during the writing of this novel, and was impressed, all over again, with the way the film’s narrative feels immediate and spontaneous, and yet so beautifully structured. My fictional filmmaker, Rohit, approaches his documentary very differently, in that he has a sense of what his film should look like, before filming even begins, and is less interested in the particulars of life, the unexpected discoveries that unfold in a film like Six O’Clock News.

But I have to say that I do feel an affection for Rohit. He was a pleasure to write. I recognize that anxiety of wanting to be taken seriously, the fragile shell of self-assurance he builds around himself.

Q: You were raised in Louisville, Kentucky, yet the locales of Linno and Anju Vallara—Kerala and New York—are worlds away. How did you write about places that were foreign to you, especially Kerala, and make them feel like home?
A:
It’s a nice relief to hear that both Manhattan and Kerala felt like home. I’ve been living in New York for five years now, so Manhattan and Jackson Heights were somewhat familiar to me. And my father is from Kumarakom, a village near the coast of southern Kerala, where my family and I have been visiting for years. The last time we went, in 2006, we visited my father’s family home, which is shuttered and abandoned now, and I remember feeling a sense of loss for the many people who had passed through there. I suppose, in an indirect sense, I was drawn to that place out of personal attachment and family history, but I wanted to write about a Kumarakom that was grounded in the present, and not confined to the stories I had been told by my family members. So I researched Kerala and Kumarakom as I would any place I wanted to write about: I read books and newspapers; I interviewed locals; I pored over maps and blogs; I asked my father to connect me to his network of old friends so they could name an obscure brand of 1975 rum.

But too much research can also defamiliarize a town, if the writing is bogged down in encyclopedic explanations. So it was a challenge for me, to represent Kumarakom through the eyes of the character I was writing about, without romanticization, while still conveying what I found fascinating about that environment.

Q: One of the strongest themes in Atla s o f Unknowns is the unbreakable bond of sisterhood. What is your family like? Do you also have a sister?
A:
I have two sisters; I’m the middle. Each family member has a strikingly different personality from the next, and different interests. And each of us thinks he/she is very amusing, so we spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen, embarrassing each other with old stories, interrupting each other, eating. Being the only male, my father makes the occasional cameo appearance and then goes back to his library. There are aspects of my family that permeate my writing, but no one-to-one correllation between my father and Melvin Vallara, for example, though my father has been known to sleep through church.

And as with any close family, the Vallaras believe that they know and understand each other. But when a child or a parent acts outside of the family’s understanding of her, suddenly her mysteries are thrown into relief. Every family has such moments, when the familiar becomes foreign for an uncomfortable moment, and it seems easiest to treat that tension with silence.

Q: You write both eloquently and humorously about the immigrant experience. What sort of research did you do for this portion of the book?
A:
I once went to Jackson Heights, in Queens, to interview a group of threaders at an Indian beauty salon for the New York Times. The newspaper ultimately took a very compressed version of our conversation, but the pages and pages of transcripts kept me wondering about those women, the salon, their neighborhood. I began looking through archived articles on Jackson Heights, ones that mentioned South Asian immigration in particular. One of the first articles I read involved the abuse of the legal system by fraudulent lawyers, who offered illegal aliens a fantastically swift path to citizenship, basically in exchange for the client’s life savings. Of course those clients ended up broke and unable, as non-citizens, to report their grievances. And it seemed to me that this was exactly the kind of thing that might befall one of my characters.

Probably the most complicated world to navigate was that of the American immigration system, despite all the time I spent scouring official websites that purported to make things clear. In the end, what saved me was a conversation or two with an immigration law expert named Arlene Lyons who set me straight on the messy ins and outs of the system. And in retrospect, questioning her was probably a safer route than emailing Homeland Security to see just what an illegal alien can get away with these days.

Q: You’re a young writer living in New York. Do you feel a part of the literary community in the city? How important is that for you and for other young writers?
A:
I do have a group of fellow writers in the city, all former classmates from Columbia. We used to be a workshop of sorts, but the workshop has evolved into a mostly social creature, which suits me fine. They’re all excellent writers and readers, and they high-five with abandon when someone in the group has good news. That kind of community is very important to me, and maybe I’ve gotten a bit needy over the years. I don’t think that there’s a single piece of writing I’ve done that my writer-friend Jenny Assef hasn’t heavily pencilled, and this will continue to be the case until she stops replying to my emails. I can’t say whether all young writers would benefit from a literary community, but I’ve always felt that a few good readers, even one or two, can be community enough.

Q: What’s next for you?
A:
A bicycle. I’m determined to buy one, and to remember how to ride it, even if only on a short stretch of sidewalk. I’m also working on a new short story or two.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Dazzling and deeply absorbing. . . . One of the most exciting debut novels since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Delightful. . . . James writes with poise, sly humor, and an acuity both cultural and sensuous. . . . The characters’ love for one other radiates off the page.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Wise and hilarious. . . . An astonishment of a debut, so radiant with life, with love, with good old human struggle that I had trouble detaching myself from its pages. . . . Tania James comes at you like everyone you’ve ever cared about, like everyone you’ve ever lost. . . . Her prevaricating bikini-waxing husband-dodging beautiful-crazy sisters followed me into my day, into my dreams. Take this book from someone, give it to someone—you will not go wrong. Atlas is that damned good.” —Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
 
“A beguiling tale of treachery and remorse. . . . James is a perceptive writer whose insights into immigration, American life and Indian customs enrich this appealing tale.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Reminiscent of Pulitzer prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, this delightful debut is an insightful study of leave-taking and homecoming.” —Daily Mail (London)
 
“James brings a dazzling array of writerly skills to her debut novel. . . . She has a tender heart that feels for [her characters’] idiosyncrasies and yearnings, a sharp ear for dialogue, and an eye for the details of landscape and setting.” —The Washington Times
 
“Tania James maps her characters’ yearnings and missteps with the skills of a seasoned cartographer. Dazzling, original, witty, and poignant, [this] is one of the most beguiling first novels I’ve read in years.” —Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
 
“Not your standard growing-up-in-India story. . . . James has concocted a charming seriocomic blend of individuals, cultures and expectations in which every component retains its individuality.” —The Star-Ledger (Newark)
 
“Touching and absorbing.” —New York Daily News
 
“Warm, beguiling, refreshingly smart. . . . A great strength of James’ novel is the depth and vibrancy of her characters. She treats them with dignity, never withdrawing the possibility of redemption, and even the most marginal figures turn out to be mysterious, surprising creatures.” —The New Leader
 
“With Atlas of Unknowns, Tania James proves herself a natural-born storyteller—she’s the real deal.” —Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

“Painted with exquisite imagery. . . . Lines read as if they are extracted from poems, creating a story that is not only entertaining but a true piece of art.” —The Missourian
 
“One of the most engaging literary reads of the year. . . . James has made a brilliant debut, one which will be remembered for a long time.” —Business World (India)
 
“As spectacular a debut as any author could hope for. . . . With keen insight and seminal prose James has fashioned a Bildungsroman of a family saga. . . . The breadth and depth of Atlas of Unknowns indicates that its author is as wise beyond her years as she is gifted.” —The Courier-Journal (Louisville)
 
“A powerful and nuanced debut. . . . Tania James paints the dual worlds of the novel—India and America—with masterful care, choosing beautiful, shocking details, and peopling them with characters we will remember long after closing the book.” —Chitra Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices
 
“A brilliant panorama of the human condition. . . . An unputdownable page-turner. So assured is the narration, so finished the skill, that you keep reminding yourself it is the work of a first time novelist. . . . James stands out for her unique voice and imaginative narration.” —India Abroad (New York)
 
“A refreshing new voice. . . . James subtly integrates the variances in colors, textures, odors, tastes and spaces that dance throughout the novel.” —Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
 
“An intricate narrative that explores the nature of immigration and also the price paid by women struggling to find their place in the world. Share this book with your mother, your sister, your friend—they will thank you for it.” —Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
 
“This bold novel will hold you captive. . . . [James’] paragraphs burst with sensory details, precise metaphors, poignant imagery, and delightful humor.” —Sacramento Book Review
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested further reading, and author bio that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Tania James's remarkable first novel, Atlas of Unknowns.

About the Guide

Set in the 1990s, in India and America, Tania James's Atlas of Unknowns is a poignant, complex, and often vibrantly humorous exploration of one family's search for wholeness, a search that spans two continents and takes many twists and turns, both cultural and emotional.

Linno and Anju Vallara are growing up motherless and Christian in Kerala, India, raised by their well-meaning father, Melvin, and their fiercely opinionated grandmother Ammachi. The sisters have very different temperaments and talents-Linno is an exceptional artist, despite having lost a hand as a young girl; Anju is highly intelligent and successful academically. When Anju is considered a candidate for a scholarship to study at a private high school in New York, she claims her sister's artwork as her own-and wins the scholarship on false pretenses. The dream of America is too tempting to let slip away.

Once she is in New York, Anju's life changes radically. She stays with a wealthy American family of Indian heritage, headed by Mrs. Solanki, a well-known television talk show host. Anju's daily routine includes navigating the subway system, assimilating to the social structures of an American high school, and befriending an intense and poetic boy named Fish-all the while trying to maintain the precarious illusion of her artistic talent. When her deception is accidentally revealed to the administration, she runs away, cutting off all contact with her family. She seeks shelter with Bird-a former actress whose history with Anju's deceased mother is unknown to Anju-who gets her a job at a beauty salon in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Back in India, Linno is considering the possible benefits of marriage to a sophisticated and wealthy blind man, Kuku, as arranged by her father. Ultimately deciding against this union, she throws herself into a burgeoning career as a designer of invitation cards, hoping to attain a level of success that will take her to the United States to find her sister. Both Linno and Melvin devise their own strategies to find Anju, even as it seems their contacts in New York have grown discouraged.

Wearied by her work as a bikini waxer and by her fruitless attempts to secure a green card, Anju finally finds a way to return home. A complicated plan devised by Anju and the Solankis enables Linno and Anju to meet again, and they reunite as women who have grown closer as a result of their separation-closer to each other, to the truth about their mother's past and the devastating circumstances of her death, and to the strength of their own individual voices.

Atlas of Unknowns is a deeply satisfying novel that explores the conflicting and often painful emotions evoked by separating from home, culture, family, the truth of the past, and one's familiar role. But it explores as well, with deep empathy and insight, the healing made possible by reconciliation. Each character's individual journey leads to the recognition that they are in fact part of the same whole, bound by love, tethered to the past even as they long for freedom and a new life.

About the Author

Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia. She has published her work in One Story and The New York Times. She lives in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1. What is the significance, both literal and metaphorical, of the novel's title?

2. What does America symbolize to Anju and her family? In what ways is the influence of the West felt in their small village?

3. In an attempt both to condone and to apologize for Anju's betrayal, Melvin says, “There is good and there is bad, Linno. And then there is bad for good's sake” (page 32). Is Melvin right about this? How does Anju justify her betrayal? How can Linno's inability to confront Anju be explained?

4. How does the Vallara family's Christian heritage influence the way Ammachi, Melvin, Linno, and Anju make sense of their experiences?

5. The narrator only gradually reveals aspects of Gracie's personality and the circumstances surrounding her death. How does this serve to build dramatic tension throughout the novel? How does Gracie's death affect the main characters?

6. As Bird is planning to approach Anju for the first time, she thinks, “Time is but a circle, and a person might run from the past only to find herself faced with it in the end” (page 66). How does the past influence Bird's present life? In what ways do other characters try to flee from their pasts? Do they succeed, or are they also forced to face the past in some way?

7. What is pleasurable for Anju about life in America? What is disappointing? What cultural differences are most jarring? What is pleasurable for Anju about life in America? What is disappointing? What cultural differences are most jarring?

8. How do wealth and fame figure into the narrative? Consider the characters of Mrs. Solanki, Kuku, and Abraham Chandy: What advantages do they possess? What kinds of limitations do they experience, either because of or in spite of their positions?

9. How does Linno view her talent as an artist? What role does the creative process play in her life?

10. Anju observes of the Solankis: “There is no discussion that this family will not touch, no question unposed, no secret kept. Yet for all their honesty, all these freedoms of speech, neither Rohit nor his parents seem to know what to make of one another. . . . Whether this is better or worse than her own family, Anju cannot tell” (page 111). Is the honesty among the Solankis better or worse than the secrecy maintained in Anju's family?

11. How do women's desires conflict with the roles they are expected to play in the novel? How does this conflict change over the course of generations, in the lives of Ammachi and her sister; Gracie, Bird, and Mrs. Solanki; Alice, Linno, and Anju?

12. When the sisters are finally reunited, Anju chooses to face Linno away from the cameras. How does this decision reflect a change in Anju's values? What does Linno's response say about her own internal transformation? What does this ending reveal about their relationship?

13. What role do prophecy, guilt, confession, and redemption play in the novel?

14. How does the novel illuminate the contentious issues surrounding immigration in a post-9/11 world? What does it say about the cultural differences between contemporary India and America?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies; Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth; V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas; Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things; Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children.
Tania James

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  • Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James
  • April 20, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9780307389015

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